Bridges y Puentes

Dorothy Max Prior

Ragroof Players and Theatre Royal Stratford East

Stratford Centre multi-storey car park

From 15 September 2017 to 16 September 2017

Review by Howard Loxton

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This is a promenade performance about migration that is a new incarnation of one that has evolved since 2011 as it has been influenced by further research and interviews. Although it builds on previous versions, interviews with migrants at each place influence its development and presentation.

Its format is partly immersive as participants are issued with passports by the Theatre Royal box office before being led to the Stratford Centre and up in a lift to the sixth floor of the car park. There they hang around for a while as they gather, waiting for something to happen—just a hint of the limbo in which many would-be immigrant travellers find themselves—before being eventually led up a fabric pathway painted with migrating birds to a distant part of that level.

The six performers shortly follow them, making a dance-like progress along the path. They introduce themselves and embrace the audience before they begin telling their stories in a succession of locations, many of them defined by or self-constructed from suitcases.

This isn’t a play about the refugee immigrant crisis, although some of its characters are refugees, but the wider immigrant experience of those who have come to the United Kingdom, not just about journeys but also what it is like to come to a strange country. Shango Baku, for instance, portrays an elderly black Caribbean man who came here many years ago, who has spent more than 40 years working on Britain’s railways, who still remembers the cold of this country that gets right into the bones, so different from the warmth of his homeland with its luscious fruits and its hummingbirds.

Leah Kirby does play a refugee, from Africa or the Middle East, who had a dream of escaping, of being a beauty therapist. It took her ten years but she reached Britain and did achieve it. She came in an overfilled boat. “Get out, get out,” she was ordered by a fellow refugee forced to row it back to the people smugglers who threated harming his family if he didn’t. Seen in a camp, she offers participants tea, thanks them for their gifts and requests next time bring gas for cooking.

When she’s in Britain, she helps others, especially Clovis Kasanda’s immigrant, probably illegal, who lives on a rooftop. We see him on the journey when, all his resources expended on passport and crossing, he gets stopped at the border for he hasn’t a visa—no one told him about that. His desperation frequently breaks into other sequences with its strong physicality.

Piotr Baumann’s character is probably Eastern European. A refugee child, he remembers his father, never happy, always on the move, though now he seems good and dealing with everything.

Anna Symes plays an Irish woman who came to Britain as a child with her mother. Grown up, she moved between countries, living for a time back in Dublin, though now finds herself not quite fitting into either, too English for Ireland, more Irish here. She remembers how her mother never left the house, unable to cope with the big city after growing up in a small village in Ireland.

Then there is Martin Espindola’s Hispanic dancer-musician, the character probably South American, his movement expressive. It is he who seems best able to handle things. “Where I am is my home,” he says, “musicians always get by.”

All these stories are interwoven. The actors mainly stay the same character but they could represent many others. This is the complexity our in-comers offer, though they have some things in common.

Moving from location to location around the floor of the car park is a reminder of the tortuous journey many take to reach Britain. At one point, participants move through a caged path where photographs of a great many individual refugees are displayed on the wire netting, each labelled with their name and where their home is. On the reverse is the place in Britain where they are living now and perhaps making a new home. This is where passports are inspected and stamped. Where you wait anxiously to see if you will get through.

Director Marion Duggan makes things move easily between direct address, dialogue, stylized movement and dance choreographed by Carmela Acuyo Fernandez. Espindola’s squeezebox music adds colour and variety while there is often an underlying sound score by Filipe Gomez that mingles with ambient noise from outside.

As well as the clever use of suitcases, designer Katherine Heath and her physical reminder of dislocation border controls briefly (too briefly) presents a beautiful collage of London landscape, combines multiple private rooms in a single setting and, as the performance draws to its close, combines the symbols of suitcase and birds in a telling image that could suggest both found freedom or a future return to a homeland.

Cast and creatives bring such a feeling of truth and reality to this presentation that you feel they could be telling their own stories. Perhaps they are.

There will be further performance of Bridges y Puentes in Dover 22-24 September at the Charlton Shopping Centre Car Park.